Ailing Johnson won't ice dream hTC

Ken Rosenthal

July 15, 1991|By Ken Rosenthal

LOS ANGELES -- It's a Johnson family ritual this summer. Dana returns home exhausted after working out, and Devin and Kevin, her 11-year-old twin brothers, rush to the freezer. "They have the ice bags waiting," Dana said. "They know."

Dana, 18, likely will require arthroscopic surgery to remove a bone chip under her right kneecap. But that isn't preventing her from playing basketball in the U.S. Olympic Festival as she prepares for her freshman year at Tennessee.

The former Western High star won't stop now, not after completing her transformation from 255-pound freshman into high school All-American, not after earning her spot on the East squad with an inspired, courageous performance in the Festival trials.

Johnson wants the Festival to be her first step toward the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Unfortunately it's a more painful step than she envisioned. She clearly is not 100 percent, though she averaged five points and five rebounds as the East split its first two games this weekend.

"It's really starting to get to me now," the 6-foot-2 Johnson admitted after yesterday's game at Pauley Pavilion, flexing her knee to keep it loose. "When I'm playing I can't feel it at all. But once I sit down it's a totally different story."

Dr. Bill Howard, head of the sports medicine clinic at Union Memorial Hospital, gave Johnson his blessing to play in the Festival. But Johnson already has phoned home and asked her mother to schedule an appointment for when she returns.

"She is in pain," said Breezy Bishop, Johnson's coach at Western. "She's going to play through the pain. Dr. Howard recognized she has this desire, this drive. That was a factor that made him decide this kid needs to fulfill one of her dreams."

Johnson isn't simply a reckless kid in search of the limited glory women's basketball provides. Bishop called her unlikely ascent a "fairy tale, a Cinderella tale." Indeed, it's impossible to tell her no when she has worked so hard at saying yes.

She played with discomfort her entire senior year at Western, and still averaged 22 points and 21 rebounds per game. "I've got to keep playing," she said yesterday, knowing it's the only way she can keep improving.

Her summer has been one long workout -- endless sessions with Bishop at Notre Dame College, spirited games in the Charm City League, three-mile runs, aerobics, weights. Johnson currently weighs 210 pounds; Tennessee coach Pat Summitt wants her below 200. Bishop insists on 195.

It figures that Bishop is more demanding; she helped Johnson scale down from 255 by asking her to cut down on sweets and stop eating after 8 p.m. Today Johnson refers to her as a "second mother," and Bishop fondly recalls the first time they met.

Johnson, then a freshman, was sitting in the bleachers during phys ed. "The bell rang, and she came out of the stands," Bishop said. "I saw this kid, this big kid. I smiled. She smiled. She said, 'Ms. Bishop, how can you join a team around here?'

"I said, 'Do you play any sports?' She said, 'Not really.' I asked, 'What sport do you like to play?' When she said, 'I'd like to learn to play basketball,' she didn't leave my sight the whole four years."

Johnson chuckled and said, "She exaggerates it a little bit" (she later joined the volleyball and track teams as well). In any case, the saga came full circle, with the two switching places -- Bishop in the stands, Johnson on the court -- in an equally dramatic moment at the Festival trials.

This was in April, at Robert Morris College. Johnson began limping under the strain of three workouts a day. Bishop, forbidden from speaking with her star during the tryout, grew frantic. She finally instructed one of her own players, sophomore Erica Dailey, to give Johnson a message.

"I said, 'Erica, tell Dana just to play defense, show them you can get up and down the floor,' " Bishop recalled. "Well, she literally ran the floor like a guard. She was incredible. She blocked shots, she cut off the baseline -- and she was doing this against freshmen and sophomores in college."

Johnson admitted she was in considerable pain, but said, "I tried out last year and made it to the final 30 in the East. I wasn't in shape at all, and I made it that far. I said, 'If I go in shape, spend a year improving . . .'

"For me it was a true goal. With the hype of being All-America, for me to go there and not make the East team, it would have been like All-America status doesn't mean anything."

So now she's here, and her surgery -- with its eight- to 10-week recovery -- is on hold.

"Obviously any time you have a knee problem it's a concern," said Summitt, who has coached Tennessee to three NCAA titles in the last five years. "But Dana's orthopedic doctor and our orthopedic doctor both looked at the X-rays. Surgery was not recommended at this point in time.

"She could have it in August or September. It depends on how Dana can handle some irritation or discomfort along the way. Hopefully with a good structured rehabilitation we can get to the point where she won't be playing in pain."

If not, so be it.

Just tell Devin and Kevin to bring the ice.

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